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An 'Exodus' With Extra Eyeliner And Crocodiles

Rhamses (Joel Edgerton) and Moses (Christian Bale) in Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings. Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

toggle caption Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox

Rhamses (Joel Edgerton) and Moses (Christian Bale) in Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox

The tale of Moses is not exactly fresh cinematic material, so anyone attempting an update would to be wise to have a theme. The subtitle of Exodus: Gods and Kings suggests that Ridley Scott intended just that. The director must have meant to contrast the decadent Egyptian pharaohs, who imagined themselves divine, with the humbler servant of the Hebrew G-d.

That idea is submerged somewhere in Scott's bombastic epic. But it's about as easy to read as the message plucked from a chicken's entrails for the edification of Seti (John Turturro), Egypt's Pharaoh when the story begins.

The resulting prophecy is, like the movie, bloody and inconclusive. Crowd-wowing CGI spectacle and the inevitable if inconsequential 3-D effects make Exodus look like pure product, without any defining vision. At least Darren Aronofsky's Noah, however nutty, had a point of view.

Scott has described himself as an agnostic, and he immediately challenges the faithful by setting the action in 1300 B.C.E. — "Before Common Era," the designation preferred by academics and some non-Christians over B.C. ("Before Christ").

Whenever possible, Scott and the four credited scripters treat the purely mythic story as if it occurred in a world bound by the laws of science. The 10 plagues, pumped up with the addition of voracious crocodiles, are presented as logically proceeding from one to the other. And the Red Sea crossing suggests that Moses and his followers benefited from the receding waters of a perfectly timed tsunami.

Yet Exodus doesn't avoid the supernatural when there's no other alternative. That bush still burns, and it's a phantom menace, not Jewish ninjas, that kills Egypt's first-born.

The filmmakers also follow established nonbiblical traditions. They identify the Pharaoh of the Exodus as Ramses — spelled "Rhamses" in the credits — and indicate that Moses became an Egyptian prince before discovering his true heritage. Neither of those details is in the original account.

At first, the model for Exodus seems to be Scott's own Gladiator. There's a massive battle — with the Hittites, not that it matters — and tension because the dying ruler favors surrogate son Moses over his real one, Rhamses. (Sibling rivalry is another underdeveloped motif, although the film is dedicated to Tony Scott, the director's late brother.)

Seti's preference for Moses is hardly surprising, since the adoptee is a bearded Christian Bale, as virile (if not quite so growly) as his Batman. Meanwhile, the pharaonic first family recalls a glam-rock act. Rhamses (Joel Edgerton) sports a shaved head and black mascara and plays with a veritable Slytherin of pet snakes. Overseeing the enslaved Jewish workers is a corrupt viceroy (Ben Mendelsohn) who offers Moses sex in exchange for not reporting his graft. He's a fetid cliche, sailed out of Caligula and down the Nile.

Eventually, Moses is exiled, encounters a petulant preteen G-d (11-year-old Isaac Andrews) and returns to free his people. The movie's latter half becomes jerky as it hurries to fit in all the expected events, and yet is not without tediously overextended sequences. Perhaps Scott's four-hour cut, likely to show up on Blu-ray next year, will have a more consistent rhythm.

The director, who's under fire for relegating Middle Eastern actors to tiny roles, altogether ignores Afrocentrist notions of ancient Egypt. But then Exodus has only enough unconventional ideas to offend the most literal-minded believers.

Its principal ingredient is bluster: a haranguing score, the video game grandeur of the Egyptian capital and a cast of thousands, of which the goats are generally more engaging than the humans. Many of the movie's quadrupeds suffer horrible fates, but at least they're spared the worst of all: delivering's Exodus's clunky dialogue.

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